Halbarad leaned low over the horse's grey neck, a wide grin on his face, and shouted, "Run, Vingilot, run! Quick as your namesake!" He whooped with triumph as the horse's gallop sent his hair and cloak flying in the wind like the sails of Eärendil's great vessel. No task had ever brought him such bliss: to fly at Vingilot's great speed down the Ranger's road to the Keep, to deliver to his father the news that the Heir of Isildur had returned.
Through the golden afternoon he sped, into the shadowy evening and the deep night. He slowed only to pass farmers' wagons laden with harvest, and stopped only to rest the horse and to sleep for a few hours.
The next day, as he approached Thurnost at the southern tip of the Angle, the land began to climb, slowing him down, and the rich earth give way to black rock. Ahead, he could see the stony crags that hid the Keep, marking the sharp point of the Angle where the two rivers joined to one great flow to the Sea, far in the south. Only a neck of rock joined the land of the Angle to the hidden fortress. To reach it men had to enter a tunnel that was its only entrance by land.
Halbarad waved to the sentinels at the tunnel doors. "Chieftain's business!" he called out. Just as the huge wooden doors, barred with steel, swung open, he loosed the rains and let Vingilot fly. Down the stone tunnel the horse's hoofs clattered against the smooth floor, fashioned by the Men of Númenor even before the founding of the North Kingdom. Emerging into the light, he slowed Vingilot to a walk along the unpaved paths of the inner fortress.
The bell tolled, calling all Thurnost for the evening meal in the Commons of the Great Hall, and Halbarad heard and saw the bustle of the workmen as they began to put away their tools. A blacksmith splashed his face in a bucket of water and scrubbed his hands clean. A mother—Urwen, Halbarad guessed, from the lilting rhythm of her voice—called her children in from play. His father, too, was likely headed for the Commons, if he were not there already. Halbarad dismounted, and leading Vingilot by the reins, headed for the stables, bidding a hurried good evening to those he passed as he went.
"Feed him well, Amras, he has done good service these two days," he said to the stable boy. With quick strides he passed into the hall where women were passing out baskets of bread and pitchers of ale. "My father—where is my father?"
"Yet in the map room, sir," answered young Fíriel as she swung a pot of soup onto a table.
Without a word Halbarad strode through the Commons and took the stairs two at a time to the upper level. The sound of his own feet against the dark wooden floor did not mask the murmur of voices through the open doorway—his father was not alone. No surprise in that; it was his habit of the evening to consult with his captains.
"Two more boys for training, I think." Ingold, Hallor's chief lieutenant, pounded one fist into his open palm as Halbarad burst into the room. Ingold's head swiveled sharply. "Halbarad! Are you supposed to be here?"
Hallor, stretched out in his deep chair, a mug of beer held against the arm rest, removed his pipe from his mouth. His eyes belied his seeming calm. "What is it? What has happened?"
"Aragorn," Halbarad panted. "He came to the Meeting Stone. Two days ago, we met him."
Hallor stood up. Ingold's hands dropped to his side. Daeron, the master-at-arms, turned abruptly from the hearth. The room stilled to stunned silence. Hallor moved first: without a smile, but his eyes twinkling with curiosity, he said, "Close the door, Halbarad. And start at the beginning, and tell us all."
With a quick pull at the handle, Halbarad drew the door shut. He kept his tale brief, and watched the men's reactions as he spoke. A smile deepened on Hallor's face, Daeron's silence grew more dour, and Ingold's shrewd eyes shone with a dubious glint.
In the silence that followed, Halbarad allowed his eyes to wander the room. Afternoon light from the open window fell upon a large map stretched across the table's other end: small pebbles clustered at the markings for Sarn Ford, Bree, Fornost, the Northern Downs, the Tower Hills, and the Angle. A platter of meat pies and a bowl of pease sat untouched on the table, along with a breached keg of beer and several mugs. He sat down and served himself a plate of food and a full mug of beer.
Restless, Ingold paced in the space between table and wall, his shadow moving across the racks of rolled maps and arms.
The acting chieftain sank back into his chair. "Well, well, well! We must go at once to greet him."
Ingold swiveled on his feet to face Hallor. "Greet him! You believe this tale?"
"My son says that Hawk and Goenor both believed the man to be Aragorn. I will reserve my final judgment until I see for myself, but I do believe you trust those two as much as I do."
"Perhaps he is Aragorn." Ingold pounded his fist yet again. "But where has he been these years, and for what purpose does he return now? Or, should I ask, for what purpose does Elrond send him back? You said he came from Rivendell, did you not, Halbarad?"
"Yes, from the Elves. He has messages and gifts from Elrond, he said."
"'He said'—the very point. We cannot take the word of a stranger on this matter."
"He is not a stranger." Hallor spoke around the stem of his pipe. "He was born here, as you well know, Ingold."
Ingold huffed with irritation. "Don't play with words, old friend. How can we know this man is Aragorn? He comes to us just as Sauron is revealed in Mordor."
"He is no spy," said Halbarad sharply.
"You know this?" asked Ingold with a grimace.
Halbarad opened his mouth to speak again, but stopped when his father put out his hand. "Whoever he is, he asked for our hospitality at the Meeting Stone, and he will get it."
"You are a far more patient and trusting man than I," Ingold grumbled.
"A good thing, too," murmured Hallor with a smile. He looked up at his son. "Sit down, Halbarad. Eat, drink. What else would you suggest, Ingold? We send him packing?"
Halbarad sat at the other side of the table so that he could see Ingold's face. He knew his father wanted him to listen and observe. Seizing a meat pie—the rich smell had already set his stomach grumbling—he poured a mug of ale.
"Someone must meet him, of course," Ingold said. "But we must have proofs of this man's claim."
Stopping the mug just as it reached his lips, Halbarad looked up sharply. "He carries Narsil. Hawk and Goenor recognized it. Is that good enough?"
"The sword stolen along with the son and the mother," grumbled Ingold. "Too good, perhaps? What is Elrond's purpose, then? Since he keeps the scepter, he evidently thinks himself king of Arnor."
Removing his pipe from his mouth, Hallor cleared his throat and cast a sharp glance at Ingold and Daeron both. "You would do well not to confuse these matters. If Aragorn has indeed returned, that is all to the good. Do not place our quarrel with Elrond upon his shoulders. He was only a child at the time."
"And barely more than one now, but twenty years old—Elrond's child, not ours. I have said these many years, even before Arathorn's death, we cannot depend upon Rivendell. The time of the Elves is over."
"An old argument," Hallor said. "Our history tells us that nothing but good has come of our alliance with the Elves. It was not the power of Gondor and Arnor alone that drove the Witch King from Angmar."
"And what fighting do they do now? Where are their warriors, their scouts? They stay in their valley, safe and living forever, while we die fighting. And against Angmar they had their own lands to defend. But I doubt they will throw anything to our defense now. It is for Men to fight Mordor, I believe. But if Aragorn has been trained in the ways of the Elves, perhaps he plays a harp better than he wields a sword."
Halbarad opened his mouth for a sharp retort, but his father quelled him with a sharp glance before turning his shrewd eyes, glinting between half-closed lids, back to Ingold. "And were Angmar to rise again?"
"That seems, indeed, quite likely," said Ingold as he paced. "Or something else as foul."
"Yes, and we know that Sauron continues to search for any remaining Heirs of Isildur. It is Aragorn himself who is most in danger, I would remind you. Remember, as well, that the sons of the Chieftains have always been fostered in Rivendell, if not from so young an age. And they have learned to wield a sword with the skill of the Elven warriors of old."
"I do not forget," Ingold said harshly. "So we have one—one!—Elf, or Man-as-Elf, perhaps. It's the Dúnedain that lie first on Sauron's death list, all those of Dúnedain blood. We must tighten our defenses, not loosen them. We need more Rangers."
Hallor grunted. "And we may have just gained one more. What's more, we may have regained the Heir of Isildur and our chieftain. I have tried to play Arathorn's part, but such a man cannot be replaced. If this man is his son, maybe he is a man of his father's stature."
"That will be many years in the making, if it happens at all," said Ingold with a set jaw.
Hallor raised his eyebrows. "Shall we leave off the argument for now? We must meet the man. As for the larger questions, the captains' council is the place for a debate. We can wait a few months. Meanwhile, I expect cool heads and calm tempers in the Keep." Hallor puffed on his pipe. Exhaling, he turned his eyes to the silent figure at the hearth. "Daeron, do you have anything to say in this matter?"
Halbarad screwed his neck to have a look at the man where he stood in his forbidding silence. Daeron's face twitched around the blind scar where his right eye had once been. "I will form an opinion when I have met him."
Not even Halbarad could read Hallor's expression. "We leave in the morning. One of you must stay here and take charge."
"I will stay," said Daeron.
Hallor nodded his agreement. "That will do."
A sharp rap sounded at the door, and before Hallor answered, it swung open to reveal the soft, worn figure of Ivorwen daughter of Gilbarad. A slow smile spread over Hallor's face. "Good evening, Ivorwen."
Her hair bound up in a old cloth, she wore her apron, dusty with flour and the stains of what looked like fruit. "My grandson, my daughter—you have had news."
Halbarad had grown up with tales of Ivorwen's foresight, but this astonished him. "How did you know?'
Hallor chuckled. "I would ask rather, what took you so long? Has your Sight grown sluggish? Yes, Halbarad has seen Aragorn at the Meeting Stone."
Her face lit up like the sun. "I knew it! And my daughter?"
"She remains in Rivendell, we are told," Hallor said.
Ivorwen's face fell, but she said, "I will go with you to meet him." Her soft, warm glance fell on Halbarad's face. "Tell me everything."
Hallor said, "Sit down. The others were just leaving."
With a sharp nod, Daeron stalked from the room. Ingold said only, "Until tomorrow," as he closed the door behind him.
And for the second time, Halbarad told the story of his first meeting with Aragorn. Ivorwen's shining eyes blurred with tears, until she openly wept. "At last, at last."
"Ivorwen, tell me, what did you See?" asked Hallor.
"I have had the dream of the green stone seven nights running now. It has not happened that way since my grandson was born." She lifted her hands in a gesture of acceptance.
"You must come with us. Your recognition of this man as Aragorn will count more than any other's. Can you be ready to leave at first light?"
"Oh yes, I will begin preparations now. How many will go?"
"Four—Halbarad, Ingold, you and I."
"It will be done." As she turned away, she caught herself. "My pardon, Hallor. I did not realize I had appeared before you in my apron."
Hallor only chuckled in reply, and she left with a sweet smile. Silence descended on the room as Hallor puffed thoughtfully on his pipe and Halbarad waited for him to speak. Finally the acting chieftain sighed and turned his sharp eyes to his son. "Well?"
"Aragorn will win them," Halbarad said firmly. "Father, I saw Narsil reforged in his hand."
"Did you now," Hallor murmured.
"Already I can tell he is a fine man. Skilled and courteous. Ingold cannot really believe he is a spy from Mordor."
"His purpose is rather to remind me that we face greater dangers and must be wary, and he is right. How can anyone deny it? The Dwarves, too, spoke of Mordor last they came to the Ford. The news reached the Keep yesterday, along with reports of strangers in Bree."
Halbarad huffed in dismay.
"All the more reason not to have dissension in the Keep," Hallor said. "I worry also about Daeron."
"Surely he will not dwell on his old quarrel with Arathorn?"
"My son, you are young still, and have yet to learn how long those hurts will linger. But Daeron is man enough to master them, I hope."
Halbarad did not miss the note of uncertainty in his father's voice.
Hallor stretched out his legs and drew a thoughtful breath from his pipe before he spoke again. "I wish Beleg were here. Of all of us, he knows the Elves the best, and can press some sense into Ingold and the others. Well, he will be here for the winter council, if not sooner. That will have to suffice."
"Perhaps you should then keep him here, and send Ingold to Sarn Ford."
Hallor joined his arms to his stretch. "I expect instead that I will be going to Rivendell. I must myself go to see Elrond and set things straight. I want to put all of this ill will into the past, where it belongs. It's the future we must attend to. The line of Isildur is our hope and our purpose, and now it is restored, if you are right. I think an early marriage is in Aragorn's future. Unless," and his eyes twinkled at his son, "you would like to remain his heir."
"I would prefer to be his lieutenant."
"Well said, my son," said Hallor with a broad smile. "Let's go home."
The quiet of the evening was settling on Thurnost, the time of talk and quiet chores at the fire, as they walked together along the unpaved paths skirting the workshops, small homes, stables and granaries of the Rangers' secret fortress. Halbarad wondered how Aragorn would react to what must look like meanness compared to the splendor of the Elves? Except for the Great Hall at the very south, with its circular tower that reached almost to the height of the walls, the buildings of the Keep were low, fashioned of wood, and seemingly the dwellings of common folk. The men and women who lived there were few now, in the last settled Dúnedain town of what had once been the kingdom of Arnor.
A lute struck up from one of the homes as they passed, joined by a woman's soft voice. She sings to her children, as my mother used to do. A brief sadness passed over him; so many years since that death, but still he remembered.
Inside their four-room house, built up against the wall of the Keep near the Commons, his sister sat at the fire, mending her healer's dress. A kettle steamed at the fire. "All is well, Idhril?" asked their father.
"Yes, papa. No accidents or new illnesses today."
"There is great news, daughter. Halbarad will tell you."
And so for the third time he told his tale. Idhril's face grew in interest and happiness as he spoke. "May it be true!"
"We will know soon enough," Hallor said. "Well, I will go to bed and sleep on it. It's an early day tomorrow." He took the stairs to the loft above that he shared with his son.
"And what do you think, brother?" Idhril asked when their father had gone, handing Halbarad a cup of sweet tea.
Halbarad accepted it gratefully and took a full sip before he spoke. "I wonder if Aragorn knows what he faces here at the Keep. If he does, it's a marvel he has the courage to come at all. He will need the feet of a giant to fill those shoes."
And Idhril nodded her head in agreement.